Poll: Most Americans Think ‘Torture’ Justified in Terror Interrogations

Guantanamo Prisoner REUTERSMichelle Shephard
Reuters/Michelle Shephard

On Wednesday, Reuters announced that an online poll showed “nearly two-thirds of Americans believe torture can be justified to extract information from suspected terrorists.”

A great deal of hand-wringing about the awful results of this poll ensued. Reuters argued, in the very first paragraph of its article, that American support for torture is “similar to that seen in countries like Nigeria, where militant attacks are common.”

Got that, Americans?  You’re just like Nigeria!  Especially you Trump supporters, who come in for several paragraphs of psychoanalysis by Reuters, which claims Trump “has forcefully injected the issue of whether terrorism suspects should be tortured into the election campaign,” because he said he would “seek to roll back President Barack Obama’s ban on waterboarding”… and maybe even “bring back a hell of a lot worse.”

Reuters quotes Elizabeth Zechmiester of Vanderbilt University declaring that Trump gives “a certain credibility” to the American public’s “negative emotions” of “fear, anger, and general anxiety.”

A real live Trump supporter is even brought forth to express these negative emotions, in the person of 71-year-old Jo Ann Tieken, who said America is “dealing with people who don’t play by any rules, and I can’t see why we would tie our hands and take away options like waterboarding.”

There’s a great deal to question about this poll and its analysis, beginning with the fact that it’s an online poll, which makes it about as accurate as a Ouija board.  If anything, Reuters is slightly underselling the level of support for “torture” they found, because if we add up the respondents who say it’s always, sometimes, and rarely justified, we get 84 percent support.

A mere 15 percent said “never”… including just 21 percent of Democrats, 13 percent of independents, and four percent of Republicans.  That’s a gigantic bipartisan majority of Americans who think “torture” could play some role in terrorist interrogation.  It can’t be waved aside as panic based on the Brussels terror attack, or as Trump supporters hot to kick some terrorist butt.

The Brussels atrocity may play a role in boosting support for enhanced interrogation — not just because people are exceptionally concerned about terrorist attacks at the moment, but because Brussels represented a massive “terrorist interrogation failure,” as Marc A. Thiessen at the Washington Post wrote this week.

“When Salah Abdeslam, believed to be the logistics chief for an Islamic State terrorist cell, was captured, Belgian officials followed law enforcement procedures with precision,” Thiessen observed.  “They provided Abdeslam a lawyer, told him he had the right to remain silent and put him into the Belgian criminal-justice system.”

The situation degenerated into a black comedy of stunning incompetence, as the Belgian authorities bent over backward to make Abdeslam feel relaxed and comfortable.  They didn’t question him for 24 solid hours… and then subjected him a mere two hours of questioning, because he looked like he was tired.

And during those two hours of questioning, the Belgian authorities didn’t bother to ask him if he knew anything about upcoming terror plots, even though they knew he was a key player in an active terrorist cell, and they found his fingerprints on weapons and bomb detonators seized on a raid of his safe house. The Brussels attack was rushed forward by Abdelslam’s colleagues because they were worried he’d give the authorities damaging information about their plans. They needn’t have bothered with the rush.

It’s easy to understand why anyone familiar with that story might think a bit more vigor in terrorist interrogations is needed.  The Brussels attack was exactly the kind of “ticking clock” scenario that critics of enhanced interrogation claimed was purely the realm of fiction, like the TV series “24.”  The clock was allowed to tick down, and a lot of innocent people were killed and maimed as a result.

Thiessen concludes his excoriation of the Belgians by saying he doesn’t approve of waterboarding.  “In the CIA’s experience, two-thirds of detainees cooperated without any enhanced interrogation techniques at all. Just the experience of disappearing into secret detention — with no idea where they were and no lawyer present — was enough to get them talking,” he asserts.

Perhaps some of the respondents in Reuters’ poll are wondering why we aren’t trying to get that number higher than two-thirds.

Also, the term “torture” is very broad, and it’s been so relentlessly abused to describe tactics that are not torture that it’s lost much of its power.

In a variety of ways, in poll after poll, the American people have said — it might be more accurate to say they have shouted — that security against terrorism is more important than nearly any other consideration, including their own personal sacrifices of privacy and freedom.  It would be fair to argue this attitude has been shaped by over a decade of government policy since 9/11.

The public has been asked to accept a great deal of inconvenience and expense in the name of security, right down to the occasionally ludicrous performances of “security theater” performed by the incredibly expensive Transportation Security Agency at our airports.  We’ve learned to put up with security theater at many other venues as well.

With those sacrifices made, the American public is not in a mood to hear about the tender sensibilities of terrorists, or their vast panoply of civil rights.  They’re not buying assurances that hardened jihadi killers will crack after a bit of polite questioning, just because they’re afraid of American jails.

Most of all, they want the people in charge of protecting them to understand that if another of those very, very real ticking-clock scenarios rolls around, they expect all necessary measures to be taken.

The American people have good reason to suspect their political class has different priorities than they do, so they take every opportunity granted by pollsters to make it clear they expect the gloves to come off when terrorist plots are detected.